By Richard Dean
HUMBLE, Texas – Of the eight golfers who advanced on Sunday to April’s Drive Chip & Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club, no one was more charismatic and drew bigger cheers than 10-year-old Miguel Flores Acton, who made his first two chips en route to winning the Boys 10-11 Division at the Golf Club of Houston.
Acton represents what junior golf is all about. The fun-loving youngster from San Angelo, Texas, enjoyed the day’s activities and everyone he met. The personable and engaging Acton is gifted in his golf skills and he demonstrated as much on this beautiful Southern Texas morning.
Acton scored 70 points – 5 points shy of a perfect score – in the chipping portion, while the next-best score at that skill was a 50 among the 74 other competitors.
“I’m excited and it feels good,” said Acton, who says Bubba Watson is his favorite golfer because both are left-handed. “I wasn’t expecting the chipping to be so good. I’m really excited that I sank a chip. I wasn’t expecting that to happen.”
The final skill of the competition was putting, in which Julia Gregg, 14, of Dallas, Texas, excelled. Gregg earned 70 points in the event to edge out Christine Wang, of Houston, by 2 points (128-126) to win the Girls 14-15 Division. Wang advanced to Augusta National the previous two years.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Gregg, who made the 6-foot and 15-foot putts and missed the 30-footer by 6 inches. “I didn’t really think, maybe I can win, maybe I can’t. And then to get up there and make all the putts, that was really nice.”
Four boys and four girls in four age divisions advanced from Sunday’s qualifier. Joining Acton and Gregg in advancing to the National Finals at Augusta National on April 3, 2016 were Marco Punzo, of Prosper, Texas, (Boys 14-15); Ryan Hailey, of Mansfield, Texas, (Boys 12-13); Elle Fox, of Copperas Cove, Texas, (Girls 12-13); Morgan Guepet, of New Orleans, La.,(Girls 10-11); Stephen Hernandez, of Houston, Texas, (Boys 7-9); and Emerson Blair, of West Point, Miss. (Girls 7-9).
“This is a pro course here, and I was just excited to come here,” Hailey said. “Augusta, man. Wow. Once you’ve made it this far, you realize that you have the ability to win.”
Even at age 9, Hernandez understands the importance of his accomplishment.
“It’s actually amazing,” Hernandez said. “Look at where I am. Golf Club of Houston. I appreciate the STPGA (Southern Texas PGA) being here and supporting the Drive, Chip & Putt. It feels like I’m in a real golf tournament.”
Added Punzo, who had the day’s highest number of accumulated points at 165: “I honestly did not expect this – all the video cameras, photos, everything. This is a pretty cool experience. It was very organized.
“I was a little nervous on the first tee. I had to calm myself down, but as soon as that first ball went away, it kind of all relaxed, put a smile on my face and I just got down to business. It was real good competition. I went third or fourth and saw some good drives that put some pressure on me. I saw some good chips late and I just tried to stay within myself, hit some balls. That’s all.”
Fox, 12, won her age division despite chunking her first chip shot that traveled only 2 inches.
The order of competition was drive, chip and putt. Fox said she was caught off guard by starting with the drive competition.
“I did not want to drive first. I like to putt first,” said Fox. “I did the best in my putting. I like my putting. It’s my best game. It’s nerve-wracking when you’re trying to drive, chip and putt because everybody is watching you. It was overwhelming. My confidence level is the highest I’ve ever felt.”
Guepet said the best part of Sunday’s activities was just having fun, as well as advancing to the National Finals.
“It’s really fun for me,” said Guepet, who said her favorite golfers are Lexi Thompson, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. “I really wasn’t sure [I’d win] because some people that I played against made it last year. So, I didn’t know how they were going to play, but I had to think about how I was going to play, if I was going to play good.
“It’s very exciting and I’m very happy and I’m excited to be going to Augusta.”